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on May 1, 1861, 112 men and boys from the far reaches of western North Carolina signed up to fight for the Confederacy. They hailed from Yancey County, a 313-square-mile tract of upland that included a range of tall, evergreen-draped peaks known as the Black Mountains. Calling on nature for inspiration, the new soldiers christened themselves the Black Mountain Boys and soon became part of Company C, 16th North Carolina Regiment (originally known as the 6th North Carolina). Additional enlistments brought the total number of Yancey men in the company to about 130 by late summer. over the next four years those soldiers fought and died in some of the Civil War’s most celebrated battles. on the home front the conflict spawned violence and lawlessness that left local people struggling for survival in a place where they had once prospered. Before the war ended, many residents of the southern mountains faced similar troubles, owing in part to the “social, economic and political complexities ” of life in Confederate Appalachia.1 Though historians have been slow to acknowledge it, many of the problems plaguing mountain communities resulted directly from the ways in which war reshaped the natural world. Alfred Crosby reminded us long ago that people are never really alone in nature. They live alongside what Crosby calls the “portmanteau biota,” that conglomeration of microorganisms , crops, and domestic and wild animals that reside in their bodies, on their farms, and in the woods and fields around them.2 Local environmental history—including that of Yancey County—provides an opportunity to look closely at the ways in which the Civil War altered established relationships between southern people and their fellow organisms. one way THREE Yancey County Goes to War A Case Study of People and Nature on Home Front and Battlefield, 1861–1865 Ti M oTHY S i LVE R Yancey County Goes to War 53 to tell that story—and to ensure that the portmanteau biota get equal time with humans—is to follow the Black Mountain Boys into and out of the war, paying particular attention to the ways in which their absence from the home front and their presence on the battlefield reshaped the natural world. Narrated in this fashion, the history of a single small place can illuminate the effects of the wartime environment on soldiers and civilians in Appalachia and across the South. in 1860 some 8,293 white people inhabited the coves and hollows of Yancey County. Due to the rugged forested terrain, arable land was scarce and most residents farmed relatively small bottomland tracts along the county’s major rivers. in addition to supplying their own needs, local people sold surplus grain, spirits, and livestock to merchants and factors in Asheville, who then sent the goods to planters in the eastern Carolinas. To combat soil exhaustion, county farmers used a loosely organized system of field rotation. They initially opened the dense hardwood forests by girdling trees and burning off underbrush. These semicleared plots, known as “deadenings,” could be tended for several years until erosion and declining fertility decreased yields. At that point, additional forest had to be opened while the old fields lay fallow and recovered some of their fertility, a process that might take two decades or more. The system was labor intensive, but sustainable—as long as mountain residents had fresh woodland and a sufficient work force.3 Like the majority of Appalachian people—indeed the majority of southerners—most county farmers did not own slaves. in 1860 roughly 362 slaves resided in Yancey, and the federal census listed only 3.8 percent of heads of households as slaveholders. Even so, slavery was deeply entrenched in the county’s economy and agriculture, especially among its more prominent citizens. As kevin Young’s careful analysis of Yancey slavery has demonstrated, many of the county’s largest slaveholders occupied the best farmland or were engaged in some of the larger livestock and farming operations. in Burnsville, the county seat and the region’s only substantial town, roughly one third of the eighteen households had slaves, some of whom worked on outlying farms owned by town residents . Burnsville slaveholders also rented bound labor to other landowners during the busiest agricultural seasons. By 1860 Milton Penland, a politically well-connected merchant and hotel owner in Burnsville, was one of the county’s richest men and the town’s largest slaveholder with thirty-one slaves at his disposal.4 54 Timothy Silver in Yancey, as...


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MARC Record
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